December 14, 2017

Breaking into the ordinary 

By Elizabeth Kelly *
Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

When I was a child, I loved most the wise men of our nativity set for their grandeur and color and elegance, and for the numinous gifts they brought to the Infant King. They were mysterious royalty from a far-off land who somehow possessed secret knowledge of the Savior’s birth, and I was sure their lives were full of intrigue and adventure. 

As I age, I find myself much more drawn to the lowly shepherds – for their simplicity, their humility, their faithfulness to an ordinary life of labor among innocent beasts. And I wonder about their wonder, how in their daily, non-glamorous existence, they carried within them as a people that deep longing for the Messiah. It went with them everywhere – into their homes and pastures, into their barns and fields. They nurtured that longing, they suffered with it, they held it in reverence and hope, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Awaiting the Messiah was a way of life they’d honored for generations.  

How frightening and wildly surprising it must have been – while they were simply doing what they always did, keeping at their daily labors – to have the sky erupt in glory and music and heavenly hosts.  

And I mostly love the shepherds because despite their ordinariness, despite their terror, they made the decision to go to Bethlehem. Into the night, they ran in haste. They ran empty-handed. They didn’t make a stop at Macy’s to pick up some myrrh. They ran, knowing they had virtually nothing to offer but themselves and their witness, to testify to what they had been told.
In this way, I wonder if they do not honor the Infant King in an even more powerful way. Jesus comes as an infant, completely dependent, possessing nothing. What he gives is himself in complete vulnerability and trust. Is there a way that I might do the same this Christmas, that is, make the decision to go to Bethlehem, to go there with haste and energy and fervor and without reservation, and to give Jesus myself, more of myself – in vulnerability and trust. To give not out of abundance, but out of holy dependence; to give, not out of my wealth but out of my poverty, not out of grandeur but out of humility and littleness and boring old ordinariness. 

You might be tempted to imagine that your life is too ordinary for the Father of all creation to break through with angels and glory and good news. You might think, “I’m not holy enough or important enough, or there is simply too much darkness around me” – too much corruption, too much betrayal and failure, too much terror and illness and pain, or that it’s too late for you, your chances have all been spoiled. 

But that is to forget our shepherd friends. That is to forget that in their lowly routine, their daily little faithfulness, God broke through, came crashing in with that long-awaited, spectacular rescue. That is to forget what the shepherds found when they raced to Bethlehem, an innocent babe who would touch them in the flesh, would look on them with human and divine eyes of innocence and perfect, redeeming power to reclaim all that had been lost to sin and death. 

Jesus, break through to this ordinary heart – I know it is not nameless or boring to you – and I will run to meet you in the manger where I long to entrust more of myself to your sacred heart of rescue.

Elizabeth Kelly is an award-winning speaker and the author of six books, including including Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom and Joy from the Women of the New Testament. She is trained as a spiritual director in the Ignatian exercises and leads retreats with a particular focus on helping women to flourish in their faith. She teaches in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (MN). Her website is:

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.